Painting by Katarina Countiss
NABOKOV’S BUTTERFLIES:CLARITY IN FACT
If this first example of the fusions of unum cites a case so intermixed and intermediate that the conventional labels of “art” and “science” lose all mean as distinct modes of inquiry, then a second form of fusion, less intense but far more common, uses the ordinary skills and sensibilities of the “other” side to enhance effective argument in a “home” domain of conventional expertise (often beyond the explicit notice of more parochial practitioners). I have already discussed how such preeminent figures as Charles Lyell and Sigmund Freud advanced their causes by employing an uncommon gift for writing powerful and stylish prose. I only point out that humanists explicitly value good writing as a primary desideratum of their enterprise, whereas most scientists tend to dismiss stylistic matters as essentially irrelevant to their work.)
My favorite example in this second category of unum cites the fascinating case of a great literary figure of the twentieth century (and also more than a merely competent biologist) who followed an important norm of science in his literary work, in full knowledge of what he did, why he so proceeded and how his writing would be enhanced thereby. Nonetheless, nearly all literary critics have failed to understand either the strategy or the reasons (even though the author stated his aims, explicitly and often), and have maintained their stubborn allegiance to a conventional “literary” explanation that the author himself loathed and rejected. An ironic tale indeed, well fit for the full range of lessons, from moral to political.
Vladimir Nabokov worked from 1942 to 1948 as curator of lepidoptery (butterflies and moths) in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, three floors above the office that I have occupied in the same building for thirty-five years. He was a skilled and fully professional specialist on the taxonomy and natural history of the Polyommatini, popularly known as “blues,” and he published several respected technical monographs on this large group of Latin American butterflies. In fact, as his biographers often remark, before 1948, when he began to teach literature at Cornell, Nabokov earned his primary living, and spent most of his time, as a biologist– and he would justly have been labeled as a professional scientist and amateur author.
We can scarcely doubt Nabokov’s love for his first profession as eloquently expressed in a 1945 letter to his sister.
Following the fate of many scientists who spent years in ceaseless scrutiny and drawing of delicate anatomical features under the microscope, Nabokov’s vision became so impaired that he could no longer pursue the detailed work he loved. Yet, and poignantly, he stated in a 1975 interview, long after he had ceased his biological research, that the lure and passion remained as strong as ever:
Since my years at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard, I have not touched a microscope, knowing if I did, I would drown again in its bright well. Thus I have not, and probably never shall, accomplish the greater part of entrancing research work I had imagined in my young mirages.